James Hatano looks across the floor of the sprawling Southern California Flower Market and acknowledges that he is one of the last links to a bygone age of flower selling in Los Angeles.
Hatano, 81, grows poppies, sunflowers, baby's breath and delphiniums on a small rented farm in Rancho Palos Verdes and sells them from a stall at the market. Recalling fondly how Japanese farmers founded the market in 1913, he can't miss the stunning transformation around him.
"There are very few growers here anymore," said Hatano, who has worked at the market for 52 years. "It's all buy-and-sell people now."
Today, the buy-and-sell crowd will be operating at top speed: Thursday is Valentine's Day, the busiest day on the floral calendar. The typical florist does as much as 10 times the volume of an average day.
Red, of course, is the overwhelming color this week here in an industrial neighborhood at the southeast edge of downtown Los Angeles. But green is what counts. Americans will spend a record $9 billion on fresh flowers this year, more than ever before, according to the Society of American Florists.
For much of the last 100 years, the local flower scene was dominated by two large markets on Wall Street. But the industry is pushing out beyond its historical confines and now spans six blocks. There are also rows of storefronts where shoppers can pick out flower bouquets in the shapes of poodles, hearts and horseshoes. Florists wanting to protect their designs from copycats put up signs warning visitors not to photograph the display. Customers can purchase carnations by the dozen or by the gross. They can pick up 50 roses for $24.
There's even an Orchid Row on San Julian Street.
And the district is no longer just for the industry. The two big markets charge retail consumers $2 for the right to shop at wholesale prices. Other places don't levy the fee.
When Cathy Jacobs needed dozens of flowers last week to decorate a Victorian ball, the history buff headed to the Southern California Flower Market on Wall Street, where she spent $120 on carnations, delphiniums and plumbagos.
Saving hundreds of dollars on the price of the flowers was well worth the drive from South Pasadena and the $2 admission charge to buy flowers at the market, Jacobs said.
"I come here a lot. You just walk around and you are surrounded by beauty," Jacobs said, as she recently walked through rows of tulips and roses at the market.
About $500 million of flowers and floral supplies move through the flower district annually, said Scott Yamabe, general manager of the Southern California Flower Market.
Big changes are still ahead as new businesses expand beyond the Southern California Flower Market and its longtime rival, the Los Angeles Flower Market.
This month a new flower market -- the California Flower Mall -- will open in an aging building, which for much of the last 100 years was a part of the city's textile industry. Soon the refurbished structure will be filled with lush tropicals from South America, tulips from Holland and cymbidiums from New Zealand.
Developer Mark Chatoff has poured $1 million into converting the building. The mall has 15 stalls, complete with sophisticated air-conditioning systems and refrigeration for wholesale flower storage.
Demand for this specialized space is soaring as a flood of imported flowers comes into the United States. "This area has become the epicenter of flower imports from Mexico, Central America and South America," said Edwin Carde, who runs Laxhandling & Logistics, a flower shipping consulting firm.
Renting stalls in the building are flower brokers such as Alfredo Polo, who runs A1 Floral. He imports flowers from his native Ecuador, as well as Colombia, Costa Rica, New Zealand and Holland. He sells to large retailers, including Whole Foods Market and dozens of Southern California florists and event planners.
Polo is locating in Chatoff's mall for a simple reason. He can't get a stall or membership in the two crowded established markets that have dominated the wholesale trade for nearly a century.
"There was just no place for us," said Polo, who has been working out of cramped quarters at a market nearby on San Julian Street.
Francisco Castro, chief executive of Paraiso Flowers Inc., also is moving to the mall. The importer of tropicals plans to use it as a distribution point to sell into other markets.
"We have a truck that is now making four trips a week to San Francisco," Castro said.
Up until the early 1980s, most of the flowers sold in the market were domestically grown, with the bulk coming from farms in California.
But imports have taken off as the U.S. signed a series of free-trade agreements with Central and South American nations, Carde said.
Now as much as 75% of the fresh flowers sold annually in the United States come from abroad, according to industry estimates. This has accelerated in recent years in part because globalization is trickling down to even the smallest of farms and flower brokers.
Los Angeles has become a hot spot on the worldwide flower map, Carde said.
"There are thousands of flower farms in Colombia and Ecuador that want to sell to the United States. And the Internet is allowing us to put these sellers together with the downtown flower district," he said.